What is the greatest threat to your soul? Whatever keeps you from God. And not every threat will be sin. In fact, for many of us, perhaps most of the greatest threats to our souls are not sin, but some good God himself has given to us.
John Piper offers a perceptive warning:
The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie. It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime-time dribble of triviality we drink in every night. (A Hunger for God, 18)
Do you know what awakens your appetite for heaven? Do you know what dulls those same desires? We may think we know well what sin will reap, but we’re often far less aware of just how dangerous apple pie can be.
“What is the greatest threat to your soul? Whatever keeps you from God.”
“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked,” the apostle Paul writes, “for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Galatians 6:7–8). The trouble is that we fool ourselves into thinking there’s some safe middle ground — that we can make excuses and put off sowing to the Spirit, while still denying the flesh. But we always sow to something, very often to ourselves. And what we sow slowly reveals, and shapes, what we love most in life.
The Excuses We Make
Jesus was once confronted by a group of men who had been sowing seeds in the wrong places, and for a long time. He tells them a story:
A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, “Come, for everything is now ready.” But they all alike began to make excuses. (Luke 14:16–18)
The Pharisees loved being the protectors of God’s promises, the gatekeepers of his kingdom. They loved the law not because it humbled them before God, but because it gave them power over other people. They hated Jesus because he threatened that power. The Old Testament had been one long invitation to kiss the Son, but when he finally came, they tried to slaughter him with it. Having treasured the invitation for hundreds of years, they made excuses to skip the banquet — the kinds of excuses we’re still tempted to make today.
First Excuse: “I have too much to do.”
To make his point, Jesus briefly lists three excuses, but together they speak for thousands. He even says that the many invited guests “all alike began to make excuses” (Luke 14:18). The three are meant to be representative, to lead us deeper to the root under every excuse, especially our own. The first two overlap significantly:
The first said to him, “I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.” And another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.” (Luke 14:18–19)
The first had a home to care for. The second was providing for his family. Lest we criticize them too quickly, they were (and are) basic human needs: food, water, and shelter. Leaving their field meant they and their loved ones might be homeless and go hungry.
Either way, when the banquet came, they were too busy. Business was calling. Too many house projects. Money had to be made and spent. Food needed to be on the table. Who else is going to inspect that field? Who’s going to inspect those oxen? In the story, the excuses seem ridiculous at first — until we think about them longer. The reality is that they hit dangerously close to home, to our own fields and stables. What feels so pressing to you, on any given day, that you’re willing to forgo the greater banquet set before you — to skip communing with God in his word and prayer?
“No one on earth is too busy for this banquet, not even you.”
No one on earth is too busy for this banquet, not even you. He is worth whatever we must not do to have him. So, “whether you eat or drink” — or own a home, or take a job, or secure your own livestock (or phone, or computer, or car) — “or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Wherever you work, “work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23). Manage your household well (1 Timothy 3:5). Work and keep the land God has given you (Genesis 2:15). But do not build your home apart from God, or labor apart from walking with him. There are no good excuses for skipping this banquet.
Second Excuse: “I need to focus on my family.”
The second great excuse may be more sensitive for most. It was for me. “Another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come’” (Luke 14:20). Some stood up the master because they were too preoccupied with marriage. The vows they had made before God now kept them from God. When the Bridegroom of heaven came at last to have his bride, they were unwilling to interrupt the marriage they were already enjoying. For better or worse, our spouse often has the most influence under heaven on our love for God.
Paul warns us about this temptation: “The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided” (1 Corinthians 7:32–34). The husband in Jesus’s parable, however, was no longer divided. He was all-in at home, and with no room in the inn for Christ. Did his marriage begin that way, or did the idolatry grow slowly, even imperceptibly, over time?
But doesn’t wisdom say, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord” (Proverbs 18:22)? Yes, unless his wife keeps him from feasting with his Lord. The earthly distractions in marriage are real enough to keep some of us from Jesus entirely. Anyone who dares to marry should weigh the spiritual cost of matrimony. Mines are hiding in the marriage bed for those who are not ready for them.
“For better or worse, our spouse often has the most influence under heaven on our love for God.”
The wife stands in here, of course, for any loved one who demands our time, attention, and affection. Husbands can be as spiritually dangerous as wives. So can mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers (Luke 14:26). In Christ, we learn to count others more significant than ourselves (Philippians 2:3), but not more significant than God. We can only love others well in the end when we love them for his sake. If our spouse or kids or parents or friends consume our lives (consciously or unconsciously), they rob us of what we need to love them well: God. Don’t let love you enjoy below be an excuse to neglect love from above.
Real Excuse: “I prefer my life to the banquet.”
Jesus wasn’t really talking about fields, or oxen, or even spouses, but about anything that keeps us from picking up our cross and following him (Luke 14:27). We are prone to let the pleasures and burdens of daily life become excuses for putting off Christ and his commands. When the cost of discipleship rises, when the cross we bear weighs heavier and heavier, we are tempted to scramble for excuses not to come.
Because we can prefer the life we have to a truly crucified life with Christ, we risk forfeiting the abundant life to come. Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). That word may have been the most piercing to the Pharisees. They loved the comfort, control, and celebrity they enjoyed before Jesus came and rocked their boat. They preferred the life they had to a life with Jesus in it, so they made their excuses. And Jesus says to anyone making excuses, “I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet” (Luke 14:24).
How will we feel the real horror of those words if we do not long to feast with Christ? Satan’s lifelong work is to keep us from the table — distracting us with lesser, fading pleasures, busying us with anything and everything under the sun, belittling the finest, most mouthwatering banquet ever assembled. The word of God spoils all his treachery and whets our appetite for heaven:
“Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure” — for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” (Revelation 19:7–9)
When that meal finally is served, every soul will want to have been invited. And they were, but many would not come. For wife, for work, for whatever reason, they traded the banquet for bread crumbs.
Scarcely Recognizable, Almost Incurable
Piper, still writing about the greatest enemy to our hunger for God, continues,
For all the ill that Satan can do, when God describes what keeps us from the banquet table of his love, it is a piece of land, a yoke of oxen, and a wife (Luke 14:18–20). The greatest adversary of love to God is not his enemies but his gifts. And the most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth. For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable, and almost incurable. (18)
“Sin takes the gifts and responsibilities God has given to us, and makes them excuses for avoiding God.”
The most dangerous part of our excuses may lie in their subtlety. God gave the land. God gave the oxen. God gave the bride. Shouldn’t we steward what he has provided and placed under our care? Yes, but never at the cost of our enjoying him. Sin takes the gifts and responsibilities God has given to us, and makes them excuses for avoiding God — an idolatry that is scarcely recognizable, often very religious, and almost incurable.
Almost. The excuses we have made before become new opportunities to come. The Father sent his own Son not only to warn us about missing the banquet, but to buy our seat with his blood. If we are willing to die with him, overcoming our excuses and bearing our cross, he will bring us safely to the table. He will live in and through us by his Spirit, “who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Ephesians 1:14).
And best of all, God himself will be our inheritance, the richest course of the finest banquet we have ever tasted.